Terrain: Moderate - Hilly
Season: Year Round
Distance: 43 km
Access: See Getting to The Gulf Islands
Two ferries a day service the Pender Islands from Tsawwaasen and while departure times vary day to day there is always a morning sailing and an evening sailing. More importantly, all morning sailings can be reached via bus from downtown Vancouver. For precise details see Getting to The Gulf Islands.
Those not too keen on dragging a bike load of the gear around the island are in for some good news as well. Otter Bay Marina, around the corner from the ferry landing has tent sites, pay showers, coin laundry and groceries. Those arriving without bikes can even be accommodated with a limited number of rentals. While tent sites are far from ideal, they are indeed handy.
Garden Variety Bike: The seeds of change, planted long ago, bear fruit, cyclically speaking.
The Penders, North and South, were once part of the same wasp-waisted land mass. Rather than row around either end of the island, locals were in the habit of portaging over the narrow isthmus separating Browning and Bedwell Harbours. An accommodating federal government dredged a canal between the waterways in 1903 when traffic out and about the islands was decidedly of the maritime variety. As the local population grew, seeking more reliable land-based modes of transport they demanded a bridge. The provincial government responded, rejoining the islands again in 1955. Now both modes of transportation are accommodated with masted ships as tall as 8.5 m able to scoot under the overpass at high water.
More than 2500 people call the Penders home. The north island is by far the most settled of the two as pioneers began preempting land hereabouts in the 1800s, largely ignoring the more rugged southern end. The communities of Port Washington and Hope Bay retain a funked-up 19th-century air that is oddly reminiscent of the nearby American San Juan Islands. Groceries, crafts, fine arts and photo ops galore will present themselves as you explore this historic end of the island.
Huff and puff up the hill from the ferry terminal and turn left at Otter Bay Road to reach Port Washington 2.5 km away. On the way, golfers may be tempted by nine holes on the right side of the road. With extra tee offs for each hole and a clubhouse the truly determined can squeeze in a full 19.
At the outskirts of sleepy Port Washington note Old Orchard Farm, a Victorian homestead named for the historic fruit trees which annually yield more than 50 varieties of pear, apple and plum. Some species, delicious but not transportable, have all but disappeared in the modern world of agribusiness. Down by the government wharf false-fronted Port Washington store looks like a set from a western movie. At the end of the road turn right onto Bridges Road and loop around to a small pocket beach just minutes away. Or skip the loop to climb to the summit of George Hill instead.
To reach Hope Bay, 3 km away, two alternatives exist. The main drag, Port Washington Road, slides past Southridge Farms County Store while Clam Bay Road winds towards the coast through forested back road. The beach at Bricky Bay, where a brick works once stood, can be accessed via Coast Shale Road. Broken bits of red brick still litter the beach.
Farm houses dating from the 1890s and Hope Bay Store built in 1912 dominate the community of Hope Bay. Look for hidden treasures in the motley collection of clapboard shops near the dock. Locally fashioned clothing, jewelry, pottery and glassware are all offered up for discriminating buyers.
From Hope Bay follow Bedwell Harbour Road for 3 km down island past the oldest church on the island, a homestead dating from 1895 and the pioneer cemetery where the makers of early local history preempted their last bit of turf.
Just before reaching the local airstrip the road drops down through a steep s-turn, ending on a long straightaway. As traffic tends to bottleneck here, slowdown to avoid mishap. Near the end of the straightaway further traffic congestion may be found in the vicinity of Driftwood Centre where residents do much of their shopping. A supermarket, bakery, liquor store and laundromat provide the essentials of island existence. Visitors can browse the gift shops or have their questions answered at the tourist information center. Be sure to check the bulletin board for the lowdown on upcoming shindigs. Homegrown music, theater and dance productions are regularly mounted by the more expressive hereabouts. Everything but homegrown will be on sale every Saturday morning when islanders show up to show off their green thumbs and creativity at the Farmers' Market. Seasonal veggies, herbs and fruit fresh from the farm are offered for sale alongside textiles, hand-painted stationery, dried flowers, pottery and much more. The herb superb? Ask around.
Just across from Driftwood Centre, Hamilton Road leads down to a beach of the same name and Bedwell Harbour Island Resort next door. All three marinas on the two Penders have facilities directed at the tenting public including tent sites, pay showers and coin laundry machines. The latter may come in handy if exploring several islands over many days. Camping in the open, grassy field edging the beach here can be a noisy affair with more of a carnival, than wilderness air but the sun deck, suds and pub food come highly recommended.
The more solitude-inclined will want to push 2 km further on, climbing the hill beyond Driftwood Centre to Prior Centennial Provincial Park where campers can seek refuge in the cool forest darkness. Unless arriving with reservations you are likely to find the campground full during the height of summer as its popularity far outstrips the meager 17 campsites which are available. Though ideally situated for exploring the island, services are rustic when compared to the marinas. Pit toilets and a hand pump for water are the extent of the plumbing provided here. Please help conserve water whenever visiting the Gulf Islands as the elixir of life can be scarce on these arid rocks. For a change of pace dismount and follow the Heart Trail from the campsite to a low prominence overlooking Browning Harbour. The trail eventually connects up with a Minotaur's labyrinth of roads, crescents and cul-de-sacs known collectively, sometimes derisively, as Magic Lake Estates. The 1960s real estate development sparked a fierce debate that eventually led to the creation of a political body called the Islands Trust in 1974. Much like a mayor and city council, the Trust tempers unbridled development through the creation of zoning bylaws throughout the Gulf Islands.
Though the residential neighborhood could easily be skipped several notable beaches lie beyond. Head to either Thieves Bay or Shingle Bay on Swanson Channel for a dip of the salty variety or detour to the estate's namesake to dunk your toes in freshwater instead. While at Magic Lake be sure to take in the Golf Island Disk Park too. BYOF. There are no green fees at the 18-pole frisbee fairway. A couple of other secluded beaches will be found in the vicinity of Peter Cove 5 km away at the far eastern end of North Pender.
One of the best beaches in the Penders is nearby at the head of Bedwell Harbour. Little-known Medicine Beach was obviously home to a sizable native Indian settlement as evidenced by the millions of broken clam shells strewn along the foreshore. Such "kitchen middens" are commonplace on the coast of British Columbia, mute evidence of the breadth of pre-European civilization. The saltwater marsh behind the midden, habitat for rare plants and a wide variety of waterfowl, is uncommon in the Gulf Islands. To reach Medicine Beach and the neighboring convenience store from Prior Centennial Provincial Park leave Canal Road where it abruptly zigs to the left, continuing straight on Aldridge Rd. for a short distance to the junction of Schooner Way and Wallace Rd. Medicine Beach is on the left while the grocery store is on the right.
Zigging down Canal Road and zagging past the school and health center are necessary to continue exploring southwards. Hosteling aficionados should keep an eye out for the turn off to Cooper's Landing which provides budget accommodations under the aegis of Hosteling International. Kayaking, canoeing, whale watching and scuba diving can all be undertaken through the facility. The turn off to Cooper's Landing is just before the Canal Bridge on the left. Prior to becoming a shortcut for early pioneers, for 5000 years in fact before the arrival of a few hearty Spanish and British explorers, the isthmus was a safe haven for an extended family tribe of original inhabitants who flourished on the resource-rich west coast. Though much evidence of their habitation was destroyed when the canal was dredged, the midden, known as the Helisen Archeological Site, was thoroughly excavated in the 1980s.
On the opposite side of the bridge an immediate right on Ainslie Point Road provides access to hiking trails to the summit of Mount Norman or along the foreshore to Beaumont Provincial Marine Park. From the 260 metre summit of the former a panorama of the Gulf and San Juan archipelago is revealed. The latter hike leads to a secluded arc of sand and gravel along the shores of Bedwell Harbour. Tenting is possible but access is either on foot or by boat only. As campsites abound on the Penders save this delight for some future paddle trip.
Much more accessible, Mortimer Spit will be found to the left of Canal Road just seconds beyond the bridge. The peaceful crescent of gravel and shell has seen tragic times as well. The conquest of native populations throughout the New World was an often bloody affair. And while the taming of coastal British Columbia cannot be compared to the massacres which occured throughout Latin America and the American Southwest it was not without its frictions either. In 1863 two white settlers camping on Mortimer Spit were set upon by three native men and a woman while they slept. In the ensuing fracas one of the settlers was killed while the other was wounded. White justice of course carried the bigger stick and the male natives eventually swung from a rope. Continuing down island, the next eight kilometres pass through a sparsely populated rural landscape. Just 10 percent of Pender residents live on the south island. A side trip down Boundary Pass Drive leads to Little Bay another pocket beach favored by those seeking seclusion. From here to Bedwell Harbour the main route follows Spalding Road through mature coniferous forest before culminating in a series of steep turns leading down to the five star Bedwell Harbour Island Resort. Tenting is possible here too but is clearly a sideline as the resort complex boasts an onshore hotel, restaurant, pub, grocery store and houses Canada Customs depot for mariners arriving from across the border.
The final 3.5 km dash down island follows Gowlland Point Road through more forest landscape, past a couple of side roads to the beach. Craddock Road too leads to the the foreshore near Tilly Point, a spot popular with scuba divers drawn to a network of underwater caves. A gravel beach at Drummond Bay can be accessed by turning off on Higgs Road.
Gowlland Point is a favorite spot for winter storm watching or at any time when the sun is shining. Poking around tide pools and wave-carved caves, exploring the grassy headland above the beach or simply lazing in the sun are all just rewards for the long, 20 click pedal down island. The U.S. border is just two kilometres offshore. Small wonder that Pender Island was once the staging area for smugglers running whiskey and rum into the parched, prohibition-era San Juan Islands visible in the distance.